Last week amid the hype around the Mobile World Congress, a curious announcement was made about a strategic mobile alliance between Nokia and Microsoft. Nokia is abandoning its Symbian OS and putting all its weight behind Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. Predictably the internet was abuzz, some more positive than others.
Whether it turns out to be a success or failure, Nokia made a bold strategic decision, and it was entirely necessary. Nokia may be the world leader in sales by volume, but it’s near the bottom in terms of innovation. Selling lower end phones (or poorly made Symbian “smartphones”) may have worked before, but as the market shifts to being software-focused vs. hardware-focused, they had no choice but to attach themselves to a leading OS. Some might argue that Microsoft isn’t there yet (and they certainly aren’t), but they’re a formidable player and likely will be for the foreseeable future.
But why not Android? It’s the OS market leader. It’s the only true iOS competitor out there right now. Sure, it’s crowded with other hardware players like Motorola, HTC, LG and Samsung. And Motorola has already come out and said it wouldn’t use Microsoft. So it would seem the writing is on the wall.
I think what Nokia is doing here is betting big. Sure they could churn out Android handsets and compete in a rapidly commoditizing ecosystem. Or they could gain the inside edge with Microsoft in developing an ecosystem that more closely resembles what Apple has built with iOS. This signals to other handset makers that Microsoft won’t put the same level of marketing resources behind anything not labeled Nokia, giving Nokia a near monopoly on Windows Phone hardware.
Battling with arguably more innovative companies in the Android scrum? Or immediately becoming the crown jewel of the Windows phones? Well, that all depends on what kind of market penetration Microsoft can attain. Sure, Windows Phone 7 looks a heck of a lot better than Windows Mobile. But can they ramp up development and not only get the phones to stores but stay ahead of the innovation curve? Neither company has a strong history of doing that (they’re notorious follows).
And where is the mobile OS landscape going to shake out? Apple isn’t going anywhere. Android has enough market share and developer commitment that it’ll remain a force. RIM is on shaky ground, but there is a devoted user base and corporate America still loves their Blackberries (despite the slow creep towards Apple). And RIM is likely to open up its hardware to Android apps, which could breathe new life into it.
But can a fourth OS survive? That’s debatable. I can’t count Microsoft out. And Nokia is probably the best partner for Microsoft because of the global share it can gain. But I feel like one of these players is going to falter. RIM will be marginalized, but live on with Android software support. Android and Apple are on the cutting edge. Microsoft and Nokia are fast (or slow) followers, not on the bleeding edge, which makes me think they’re the ones that’ll be left behind. It’s a long road, and Microsoft has barely entered the fight yet, so the next couple of years will be an interesting jostle between these companies and the developers they court.